The Anatomy of a Victory

by Randy Shaw on December 14, 2004

The most common reaction to the story below about the victory at the Trinity Plaza Apts has been, “How was Angelo Sangiacomo, of all people, convinced to give tenants lifetime leases and to provide 496 affordable units in the project’? The answer is clear: opponents of the planned demolition framed the debate, acted pro-actively to put Sangicacomo on the defensive, and led the prominent landlord to see that it was in his own self-interest to agree to his adversaries agenda.

When Trinity Properties announced plans to demolish all 377 units at the Trinity Plaza Apts, opponents (hereafter the Coalition) of this proposal had two options. The first was to organize resistance to defeat the project at the Planning Commission, and if that failed, at the Board of Supervisors. The second option was to put the landlord on the defensive by waging a preemptive attack on his right to demolish.

The Coalition chose the latter option. As a result, as early as May of 2003 Supervisor Daly’s office was working with the City Attorney on an ordinance to prevent the demolition of both Trinity and any other sound building over 20 units.

During the fall of 2003, Trinity Plaza tenants sought to build support for their cause at the Board of Supervisors. The tenants posed for a group photo with mayoral candidate Matt Gonzalez, and also posed with Supervisor Fiona Ma. Ma told the tenants she would help them any way she could, which they translated—incorrectly, it turned out-to mean that she would vote for the Daly legislation.

While a Gonzalez victory would have killed the Trinity Project, Gavin Newsom’s election raised new problems. The Sangiacomo family had financially backed Newsom, and it was clear that the Daly measure would need eight votes at the Board to override a mayoral veto.

As the Daly anti-demolition law moved toward its first public hearing, the Coalition began holding rallies on the steps of City Hall to bring public attention to the Trinity story. The Community Tenants Association of Chinatown turned out in large numbers to show support for the Trinity tenants, and veterans of the International Hotel campaign situated the Trinity fight among prior demolitions that displaced seniors and low-income tenants from their longtime homes.

Religious leaders associated with Religious Witness with Homeless People also joined the campaign. Rather than hold another City Hall event, the group held a spiritual service in the Trinity Plaza parking lot to urge Sangiacomo to drop his demolition plans.

At the time, the risk of displacement of the existing Trinity tenants was the central focus of the organizing. This displacement was seen as part of the larger strategy for the gentrification of Mid-Market, a goal also to be facilitated by the creation of a Redevelopment Area in the neighborhood.

The Daly legislation won the necessary eight votes at the first Board vote, but Supervisor Dufty switched his support on second reading after convincing Sangiacomo to provide lifetime leases to the existing tenants who relocated to the newly built housing. While Newsom, the Chronicle and the Examiner all argued that this offer made Daly’s legislation unnecessary, the Coalition and others like Supervisor Aaron Peskin emphasized that the city must not allow the demolition of rent-controlled housing without one for one replacement.

In other words, after being put on the defensive over the planned eviction of very sympathetic tenants, pro-demolition forces tried to reframe the debate as solely concerned with the protection of these tenants. But the Coalition refused to fight on their opponents’ terms, and intensified their framing of the debate as primarily focused on the future of rent-controlled housing in San Francisco.

Failing to override Newsom’s veto, the Coalition began gathering the necessary signatures to put the Daly ordinance on the November ballot. The Housing Preservation Initiative was titled to emphasize the city’s affordable housing shortage, and the Coalition collected nearly double the required signatures to qualify the measure.

In their ballot arguments submitted in behalf of what became Prop M, the Coalition focused on the impact that allowing the demolition of Trinity Plaza would have on other large rent-controlled buildings. In contrast, the official opponent’s argument from Mayor Newsom ignored the importance of rent control and focused entirely on Sangiacomo’s offer of lifetime leases to Trinity tenants.

The Coalition was confident that its framing of the issue would prevail with the electorate. Unfortunately, the Coalition was denied the chance to find out, as a judge threw Prop M off the ballot on a legal ruling inconsistent with all prior reported cases addressing similar issues.

Despite having its legislation vetoed and its ballot initiative invalidated, the Coalition was in a far better position than had it simply waited to oppose the demolition plan at the Planning Commission. The Coalition had won the battle for public sympathy, and had forced Angelo Sangiacomo to spend tens of thousands of dollars on public relations and lobbyists simply to keep his project alive.

Sangiacomo was no stranger to publicity, as it was his large rent increases in 1979 that provoked San Francisco to enact rent and eviction controls, But in his other disputes—the long battle over his security deposit policy and the $500 per month capital improvement passthroughs he imposed on his Bay Street tenants—Sangiacomo was not publicly criticized in the media on an ongoing basis.

By November 2004 the 81-year old landlord had been under the public spotlight for nearly a year. With the Coalition promising to continue their pro-active approach by putting the equivalent of Prop M on the ballot in a special June election, Sangiacomo faced several more months of fighting and would have to defeat a ballot initiative before he could even get to the Planning Commission for project approval.

Angelo Sangiacomo did not rise to become a multi-millionaire land owner by being stupid. As much as he felt unfairly criticized, and for all he had already invested both financially and emotionally in attempting to build a “world-class residential complex” at Trinity, he was no closer to making his dream a reality in December 2004 than he had been a year earlier.

The road to success now looked more like a minefield. Sangiacomo, like other incredibly successful businesspersons, looked into the future and decided that it was time to cash in his chips.

The “binding offer” that Angelo Sangiacomo signed and delivered to Chris Daly establishes two key precedents. First, the demolition of rent-controlled housing must be accompanied by the issuance of lifetime leases to current tenants, all whom are entitled to relocate to the newly constructed units.

Second, such demolitions must be accompanied by the one for one replacement of rent- controlled units with permanently affordable units, in addition to compliance with the city’s inclusionary housing law.

Instead of waging a defensive struggle to stop a demolition, the Coalition ran a pro-active campaign that won a huge victory otherwise unachievable in the current political environment.

Who could have imagined one year ago that what started as a struggle between Chris Daly, Trinity Plaza tenants, community groups and Angelo Sangiacomo would create a legacy for the protection of rent-controlled housing in San Francisco.

Send feedback to rshaw@beyondchron.org












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